Appreciation level-unmatched

laurenby Lauren Leadbetter YES abroad Bulgaria ’18

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In the past few months, I’ve been given the opportunity to travel outside of Bulgaria and see some of the places that travelers in Sofia often talk about. Outside of Sofia, it didn’t take long for me to begin reminiscing on the charm and small luxuries Sofia has. Small luxuries like streets rarely requiring a cross light giving pedestrians the right of way to cross wherever the pavement is striped. Or having a diverse collection of architecture in the city (caused by a fascinating history and recent economic growth) with the styles mixing in an informal fashion but they’re unified by the charm of incredible graffiti or small specialty shops that cover the ground floor of most central buildings. Huge mountains for hiking and skiing are only a city bus ride away. There are so many beautiful and practical fountains constantly running with mineral water for the people to use as they wish. The list of assets feels endless while strolling around the city on any day of the year.

So many of the aspects of life in Sofia and Bulgaria feel really special, especially with accompaniment by features in the infrastructure that are hard to find anywhere else in the world. Just as I encountered feelings of longing to return to Sofia, many Bulgarians share with me that they experience the same feelings for all the same reasons and more.

The most common question when meeting new Bulgarians is “How are you finding Bulgaria?” When I respond that I’m happy every single day I wake up here, most smile and talk about the best things Bulgaria has and how much it gives to Europe and the rest of the world. However, their admiration is frequently followed by how hard it is to properly promote and share the country’s facets with the rest of the world because of internal issues like a decreasing population, a shrinking workforce, and an absence of comprehensive legislation.

Bulgarians living here commonly tell me how easy and popular for Bulgarians to leave the country for university or to gain work experience, and then continue their lives outside of Bulgaria free of the difficulties present with life in Bulgaria. I have so much admiration and respect for Bulgarians for sharing with me how their lives here must be so that one day their country can be holistically incredible for visitors and residents.

It is always understood that I love Bulgaria, and it has felt like most other people here share that feeling too.  The people living here are wanting to share with the world and grant Bulgaria all of the recognition it deserves, as a country capable of seemingly everything and should compete with other global top travel destinations. The zeal for an amplified Bulgaria is unmatched by any other movement or cause I’ve ever seen, so much so that even my classmates talk about their life plans to enhance their country.

Though my short trips outside of the city were on a much smaller scale, I understand the feelings that motivate Bulgarians for their entire lives. I understand why the tram driver keeps all of the Bulgarian flags in the front windows. I see why the worker at my local market watches me place seemingly typical cucumbers in my bag, then he comes and replaces them with Bulgarian grown ones while shouting the Bulgarian national anthem.   I appreciate people that have share hidden information on the status of Bulgaria upon our first interaction. I have great admiration and appreciation for the aspects of my experiences in Sofia, from the open people to just crossing the street every day on my way home. I appreciate all of it.


How YES Abroad students brought Halloween to Banja Luka

American tourists

YES Abroad students Bryca, Chloe and Ella dressed up as American tourists to host a Halloween party for children at the American Corner in Banja Luka

As Halloween was approaching, our YES Abroad students in Banja Luka eagerly decided to share some of the Halloween spirit with children and their peers as well. At the American Corner in Banja Luka, Bryca, Chloe and Ella facilitated activities for children who came prepared: all dressed up in their costumes! Some were ready to join Ella and play musical chairs with Halloween music in the background, while others enjoyed “Pin the Face on the Pumpkin” game with Bryca. With her talent for art, Chloe offered kids face painting with Halloween designs, all of which children  enjoyed!

Musical chairs

Children playing musical chairs with Halloween music in the background, with Ella as a facilitator

None of that would have been possible if it was not for ideas and assistance of the American Corner director, Sonja Pržulj, and another colleague of ours, this year’s English Teaching Assistant in Banja Luka, Lee Wilson! You might be wondering where the pumpkins were–those were taken to another venue, a youth center in Banja Luka where our YES Alumna, Jelena Pilipović, PY 15/16, organized a Teen Halloween Party together with Chloe, Bryca and Ella.

“This was an exciting opportunity for us to show people here what the US tradition for Halloween is like, but it was even more fun adapting it to this context. As we realized some of the food we wished to have couldn’t be bought here, we decided to be creative and improvise—so, we made it!”, said Bryca.


Bryca in a costume of a baba (grandmom) with a friend during a Halloween Teen Party

“Even though we may have been miles away from home and people we usually spent our Halloween with, participating in all these activities did make us feel at home in a new way. I was delighted by the interest for American culture that people showed here”, concluded Ella.


Chloe with her host sister, Eva Martina, at the Teen Halloween Party

Thank you to everyone who helped us share the Halloween spirit in Banja Luka this year. We look forward to many more holidays spent together! And, YES, they did bring pumpkins! 


This is Halloween!


The life-changing journey called YES

Story from Shebi Niazi about the connection between her exchange year in the United States and the University of UAE, but also about all the other things that happened to her after she came back from America – thanks to the valuable experience she received from the YES program.


-by Shebi Niazi, YES Alumna 13-14

Many exchange students describe their year abroad in the United States as a “life-changing” one. And often it sounds like a cliché. How can a single year play such a crucial role in one’s life? How can a single year determine one’s future? Here is how it did mine.

In 2013, after competing with hundreds of high school students in Bulgaria in a series of interviews and tests, I was chosen to be one of the six finalists for the “Kennedy-Lugar” Youth Exchange & Study (YES) program for the 2013-2014 academic year. During my stay in the USA, I participated in myriad events and volunteering opportunities; I took classes that I wouldn’t have been able to do so in my home country; I was involved in extracurricular activities that enriched me academically and personally beyond measure.

shebi. nyuad

Two of the most important aspects of my exchange year were the people I met and the diversity I was exposed to. Being placed in a diverse seminar with students from all over the world, I developed a sensibility regarding the vicissitudes of cultural stereotyping and misunderstanding. Every discussion on pressing global issues was equally nuanced with the perspective of my peers from Israel, India, Pakistan, Tanzania, etc. From each I learned and to each I adopted. Checking CNN World news became part of my daily routine. Examining tensions between local ways of life with deep historical, linguistic, ethnic and religious roots and today’s transnational cultures and multiple identities, was what excited me.

After returning from the USA my passion to understand the multifaceted interconnectedness among nation-states, international institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and ethnic, cultural, and religious groups never faded away. I was awarded a scholarship from Connecting Cultures, one of the world’s leading civil society initiatives aiming to bridge the Western and Arab world through the power of dialogue. I spent one week in Oman exploring cultural differences and discussing the issues of peace with young female leaders from Europe and the Middle East. At the end of my senior year in high school I attended the YES Alumni Interfaith Harmony Conference in Rabat, Morocco. Using the skills and knowledge gained from such educational initiatives, I organized several peacebuilding workshops both in my school and community. I implemented an interfaith cross-country collaboration event in Bulgaria called “Letters of Hope to Refugees”. The campaign’s goal was to provide messages of support and solidarity from around the world to asylum seekers in Bulgaria. The project ended up having over 1,200 participants from 5 continents and 18 countries.

I was first introduced to volunteering in my exchange year in the United States where I completed more than 100 hours of community service. In 2014 I became a part of the YES Alumni Association. The goals of the YES Alumni Program are to expand on and practice what YES students have learned during their exchange year by implementing various projects. The projects I have participated in include: making handmade jewelry and Christmas cards for charity; participating in the nationwide eco-campaign “Let’s Clean Bulgaria in one Day!”; spreading love with the “Love Note Project”; organizing activities for International Children’s day; informing others about the merits of vegetarianism; participating in campaigns to address HIV/AIDS prevention, etc. My worldview was broadened by another volunteering opportunity in rural Sing Buri, Thailand where I taught English and helped with the construction work at the Sri Udam orphanage. I managed to fundraise to travel to Thailand by using all the techniques I had learned in the United States. All of the aforementioned activities taught me how to become an active citizen not only in my home country but also in every other community around the world that I choose to join.

After my graduation from high school I was presented the wonderful opportunity to work for a year as an Alumni Coordinator at American Councils for International Education. It was so much more than just working in an office setting, managing email overloads, tracking on alumni activity spending, filling timesheets, writing budget proposals, submitting monthly reports. Being able to strengthen the alumni community, to help its members bring their ideas to reality, to organize projects that make a difference and to see the impact of our actions- whether it’s the smile of an old lady at a soup kitchen or the warm thank you of a stranger, is what makes the existence of the YES Alumni community worthwhile.

Where are you now and what are you doing, you will ask. As of now, I am attending the New York University in Abu Dhabi on a full ride scholarship. I am pursuing my bachelor’s degree in Social Research and Public Policy. NYU Abu Dhabi is one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the world, with an admission rate of around 3%. The student body is arguably the most selective and internationally diverse one. My peers come from all around the globe and bring their unique perspectives with them. Being part of the community of NYU Abu Dhabi is a dream come true and a great honor. It is an important stage in my life that I wouldn’t have come close to without my exchange year in the United States that sparked my interest in international education. My year in the USA taught me how to appreciate human diversity, how to create and maintain meaningful social ties, how to invest my time and energy in developing myself professionally and personally, and above all else how to strive to make an impact somewhere somehow. I am beyond thankful for having had the opportunity to be an exchange student. All I had to do was say “YES”. And I believe that you can do it, too!


Apply now for YES scholarship if you want to live and study in USA for the 2019-2020 academic year on:

For more information visit:

My high school experience in USA!

Alper Ahmed article

Short story about high school experiences in Baldwin City, Kansas.

-by Alper Ahmed, YES Alumni 17-18

My name is Alper Ahmed and I am a YES Alumni from generation 18′. I was placed in Baldwin City, Kansas and went to Baldwin High School. For American teenagers high school takes a huge part of their daily lives from sports and extracurricular activities to homework and papers you need to get done. It’s the same way with exchange students, the only difference is you can use the excuse “I’m an exchange student” for anything.

Finding friends can be difficult in a completely new environment but one of the best possible ways to do so is by joining sports and clubs. Different schools have different sports and clubs. The Fall sports for boys that my school offered were soccer (football) and Cross Country (CC). I joined the cross country team and really got to understand what a team spirit really means. A lot of sports have daily practices and CC was one of them. Every sport has meets, competitions or tournaments against other schools from the area and state. They could start as early as 6 A.M which could mean waking up at 4 A.M, getting ready and traveling an hour.

If playing a sport is not your strength, the coaches are always looking for managers who could help out the team and make it easier for everyone. This is exactly what I did during the winter season. I’m not good in basketball nor can I wrestle, so I managed basketball for the girls. I would have to fill up water bottles, run the game clock, keep the score, etc. Basketball is one of the most popular sports in the U.S.A and that’s also true for high school and schools love playing against each other, so we had almost two or 3 meets each week during the Basketball season. Spring sports season is the one that gives you most options, at least in my school. I decided to take part in Tennis and I very much enjoyed it. The only downside that it had was the Spring sport season being far shorter than the Fall and Winter ones.

There are many possibilities for becoming a part of a club depending on your interests. Art, public speaking, crafts, FBLA, Stand up to Cancer, international club, anime, scholar’s bowl, etc.

American Football: where all the students gather in one section of the tribune, dress coded in their most outrageous but at the same time amusing outfits that they have. And that happens at many other sport events where the students want to show their support for their team. Being a part of an audience of this kind was also one of the many reasons how I got to understand and really take upon myself the team spirit that American high school students have.

Another, really fun and exciting part about the schools in America is the DANCES. Back to School, The Homecoming Dance, the Halloween Dance, Winter Formal, etc. The school dances are probably the funniest and most entertaining thing that you could be a part of in a school cafeteria. This is when you could Whip and Nae Nae and listen to the best hip hop hits from the 00s while dancing in your Halloween costume. The school dances are an irreplaceable part of the American high school experience. Before every major dance there is something called Spirit Week, where each day of the week the students are supposed to be dressed with specific outfits which could be PJ day, Fashion disaster day, Funny socks day and many more.

If I was to tell you all the things about American High Schools it would probably take me days, that is why you need to apply for the YES program and try your best at getting to experience it all your way first hand. Thank you for your attention!


Apply now for YES scholarship if you want to live and study in USA for the 2018-2019 academic year on:

For more information visit:

My amazing host family in USA!

Eli Stoeva Article
Short story about the excellent relationship between one YES student from Bulgaria and her Host family in San Antonio, Texas during 2016/2017 season.

-by Ellie Stoeva, YES Alumni 16-17

Hi, my name is Ellie Stoeva and I am one of the lucky students from Bulgaria who won a full scholarship from the YES Program to go and study in the United States for a year in 2016/2017. My placement organization was ASSE and I was hosted in San Antonio, Texas by the wonderful family of Jason, Cherie and Claire Gilmore.

My entire year was incredible and full of breath-taking moments. I got to learn about the American culture, make new friends and try new things in the coolest high school in the world- Louis D. Brandeis. I consider myself to be the luckiest girl in the world for getting this opportunity, but I am most grateful for having such an amazing host family.

The Gilmores took me as one of their own and treated me like a family member from the very first moment we got in contact. We shared passions for the same movies and activities like Harry Potter and theatre. They would help me with anything and everything throughout the year and give me the best advice possible. My host father is the funniest person I’ve ever gotten the chance to meet, my host mom is probably the wisest and most inspiring person in my life and my host sister was so lively and full of curiosity and goodness. Probably my favourite memories with them must be the times they would play pranks on me. One time I was coming home from babysitting with my best friend and I found my room all covered in paper notes, balloons and ribbons. It took me and my friend an hour to clean up and unpack every single one of the items I owned that was also wrapped in wrapping paper. It was the most hilarious thing that has ever happened to me!

My host family also had a very love and caring side too. They were very interested in and had great respect for my culture. They were always excited to try the traditional Bulgarian meals I made. My host dad really loved Bulgarian banitsa and one time when I was making it and apologised for it taking so long he simply said: “It’s Ok, you can’t rush art”. For my name day they decorated my room and our kitchen table on theme with my favourite movie Beauty and the Beast – they covered my room floor with rose petals and made special rose vases for our table. In return I cooked traditional Bulgarian foods like – “banitsa, sarmi, shopska salata and mlqko s oriz”. We all enjoyed the delicious food at a special dinner for my name day. To say that they were incredible people would be an understatement. They supported me throughout the year, taught me how to be more confident and love myself, be more open minded and fight against injustice in the world. I am so happy I have them in my life and still keep in contact with them to this day.

I am so lucky and grateful to the YES Program for granting me with the amazing opportunity to study and live in America for a year, create life-long connections with people and be able to call the amazing Jason, Cherie and Claire my second family. I encourage everyone to apply to get a chance for a taste of this incredible experience.


Apply now for YES scholarship if you want to live and study in USA for the 2018-2019 academic year on:

For more information visit:

Christmas Eco Cards

On December 28, our alumna Julija Stojanova (YES ’17, hosted by AFS in Beaver Dam, WI) organized a Christmas eco card workshop for young children in her home town of Kratovo, Macedonia. Julija and the children used old and recycled materials to craft wonderful cards with goal to share the Holiday spirit and to raise the eco awareness of the young children in her community.

MACEDONIA Kratovo Christmas Eco Cards organized by alumna Julija Stojanova '17

Led by the quote There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw anything away it must go somewhere”, around 35 children in the second grade from the elementary school in Kratovo participated and showed their creativity, as well as learned the importance of recycling and reusing of old materials. Julija had additional help in her mission of sharing eco awareness of two volunteers from the school. Together, they managed to demonstrate in a fun and interactive way the significance of learning about the environment and the ways to help nurture it.

Re-entry Seminar Made the 2017 Bulgarian Alumni Part of the YES Family

By Mirela Minkova, YES 2016-2017 Bulgaria, hosted by American Councils in Edwardsville, IL
One of the most exciting parts of coming back to Bulgaria after one academic year in the United States is the re-entry seminar for the newest Bulgarian alumni. The meeting gave us the chance to share our experiences from the year, and to talk about future projects that will make a difference in the community.
The re-entry seminar for the 2017 alumni was held on July 12th and 13th in Sofia, Bulgaria. On the first day the seven of the newest alumni met with the alumni coordinator, Shebi Niazi, and with alumni who completed the program in 2016, Victoria, a student in the American University in Blagoevgrad, and Nazi, our next Alumni Coordinator. We were happy to be introduced to the community and immediately felt very close to each other. We felt comfortable and started sharing our most amazing and most difficult moments from the year. Shebi organized a few activities with questions which everyone of us answered for themselves, but later we found out that most of the answers were very similar. This is the best part of the seminar – connecting with people who have been through experiences that you can relate to. Having the opportunity to interact with my Bulgarian YES family has made me feel more confident and optimistic.
After each one of us shared what has been the most challenging part of living in America, we started discussing our re-adjustment to the Bulgarian environment. One of the most important parts of the seminar is sharing advice on how to cope with the reverse culture shock that we all encountered after coming home. Even though we returned to our familiar environment, it does not feel the same. We have grown and developed as individuals and leaders. We realized that now, as more open-minded, organized, and independent young citizens of our country, we are the ones to make a positive impact. In America we became part of a different culture and lifestyle, which made us more tolerant and acceptable of diversity. We all share new skills and qualities that will help us identify the social issues and take action. Even though, the Bulgarian alumni community is still small, it is growing, and there have been multiple projects organized by them. Our coordinator, together with the other alumni shared the activities from previous years that have benefited the community. Shebi talked about how she developed a project for sending letters of hope to the refugees living in bad conditions in the camps. Victoria and Nazi showed us pictures from their project which involved collecting food and helping to feed people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We also learned about the renovation of a room in a nursing home for people suffering from Alzheimer`s disease and dementia, conducted by alum, Georgi Bakoev, city representative in Sofia.
The numerous examples from the great impact that the YES Alumni community has had inspired us to be active, to initiate more projects in the future, and to be responsible ambassadors for the YES program. On the second day of our re-entry seminar, Rumi, the American Councils Assistant Representative, made a presentation on planning and implementing of a project. She emphasized on team work and leadership skills, finding of a team, creating a budget, and accounting for the expenses. Our team even started a plan and elaborated on two projects – one of them was related to ecology and cleaning the environment, and the other one was concerned with solving the problem with the homeless animals in our community. While discussing our ideas, we all found out that we were mainly influenced by our volunteering experience in America. Our motivation and ambition were inspiring and we had a lot of great ides which will make a difference.
The re-entry seminar for the Bulgarian newest alumni has been extremely helpful and prepared us for the second part of being a YES program exchange student – being active ambassadors for the program. Our introduction to the alumni community created bonds for life and enabled us to receive valuable advice. Now we are part of the YES family of ambitious young individuals who are about to make our community a better place.


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GYSD Drive Safely Awareness

YES Alumni Coordinator – Bojan Aleksovski (YES ’14) organized a project that aimed to tackle Public Health – Safe Driving, one of this year’s development goals that GYSD is targeting.

MACEDONIA SKOPJE YES Alumni GYSD Drive Safely informative posters

Three YES Alumni and three YES Abroad students met up at the American Councils office. The participants had an open discussion about how to create positive teen-to- teen safe driving campaign reinforcing safe decisions and reducing distracted driving. Throughout the discussion the participants shared their own driving habits and experiences and concluded that many people, including teens themselves, think that the best way to reach young adults is to “scare them straight.” This rarely works. It can be overwhelming and cause teens to shut down. So, focusing on positive actions teens can take to be safe and to keep their friends safe can be a powerful message for teens.

MACEDONIA SKOPJE YES Alumni and YES Abroad work on GYSD Drive Safely project

Having that in mind the present YES Alumni and the YES Abroad students created informative posters about driving safely that are to be hanged in colleges and high schools in Skopje with most driving students. Additionally, the alumni created a social media for social change campaign plan. Namely, every Friday the alumni will post on the official Alumni social media accounts about safe driving.

Introducing the YES program and GYSD to Kumanovo Access Students

On Saturday, April 8th YES Alumni together with YES Abroad met up with students, participants of the Access Program at Pero Nakov High School, Kumanovo.

MACEDONIA KUMANOVO YES Alumni and YES Abroad discussing with Kumanovo Access Program students about Macedonian and American culture

The YES Alumni held a brief presentation about the YES program, promoting and familiarizing the participants with the activities that the Macedonian YES community organizes. The meeting continued with a discussion about the differences between Macedonian and American lifestyle. The YES Alumni and the YES Abroad students shared their experiences and most memorable exchange moments as well as their favorite values of the American and Macedonian culture. The visit to Kumanovo ended with a park clean up carried out by the participants with a goal to celebrate Global Youth Service Day.

MACEDONIA KUMANOVO YES Alumni, YES Abroad and Access program volunteers doing a clean up in honor of GYSD in Kumanovo

GYSD is the largest service event in the world and the only one that celebrates the contributions that children and youth make 365 days of the year. With today’s event, the Macedonian YES community aimed to tackle Sustainable Environment, one of the topics among this year’s causes that GYSD is targeting.

Student Training and Empowerment Program (STEP)

STEP FC Cover Photo 2019-USE THIS


The Student Training and Empowerment Program (STEP), the newest program administered by the American Councils office in Bosnia and Herzegovina, aims to combat the growing societal problem known as “brain drain” in Bosnia and Herzegovina by teaching select junior and senior university students how to be competitive in the job market and offer them vital work experience through internships with prospective employers in their communities. STEP launched in November 2017 and will last until summer 2020. Program is sponsored by the US Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina under its Democracy Commission programs.


Countering ”brain drain”


Brain drain is one of the biggest problems that Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is currently facing. According to the most recent data, 150,000 people have moved out of BiH in 2016 alone with the numbers continuously increasing. As trends have shown over the last decade, young people are moving out of BiH with an idea that in order to succeed in life or have a career, they need to leave their country of origin. Young people in BiH finish their education and struggle to find a job, either because most employers look for people with work experience that recent graduates cannot provide, or because they were not taught the skills necessary to be competitive in the job market.

Universities generally do not have any specialized classes for career skill building; they do not have career advisers nor do they organize workshops or trainings outside of the regular curriculum. Secondary and tertiary education often does not equip students with any basic skills when it comes to the job-seeking process. Students graduate without knowing how to behave in a job interview, or write a resume or cover letter.


What does STEP consist of?


The STEP program consists of three phases:

  1. a series of courses and workshops designed to equip university students with the skills necessary to be competitive on the job market to be held in Banja Luka;
  2. internships with local businesses, institutions, and organizations for students in Banja Luka or Sarajevo;
  3. peer education programs organized by participants to share their knowledge and experience after the internships.

After all participants have successfully completed the training, internship, and peer training, they are invited to a closing ceremony that will be held in Sarajevo at the end of the program in 2020. This event will be an opportunity for participants to share their experiences. Each participant will receive a certificate of completion that confirms they have three months of work experience.


For more information about STEP, please contact: +387 33 838 262, write an email to: or visit our STEP Facebook page.